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Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. dead at 61

Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr., of Newton County, died July 1.
Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr., of Newton County, died July 1.

Superior Court Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. wasn’t a person who yelled or leaned on his elected position when he wanted to make change happen in his native Newton County.

“He was someone who effected change from behind the scenes,” said attorney Michael Geoffroy, his longtime friend. “It was always with a smiling nudge and a gentle push.”

He was a man of action, Geoffroy said. “He called and asked me what I thought about starting a Boys and Girls Club in Newton County. I sheepishly said it would be difficult, and we’d have to raise some money,” Geoffroy remembered. “He told me, ‘We are going to start a club, and you’re going to be the chairman, and we’re going to get it started within a year. ‘ ”

The two of them worked tirelessly to make that happen.

Johnson’s service and devotion — to the legal system, his community, his family — were cornerstones of his life, during which he was constantly breaking new ground.

He was part of a small group of African American fourth-graders who led the integration of the county school system in the late 1960s. He was the first Black attorney to practice in Newton County, moving his base of operations there three years after graduating law school in 1982, his family said. And he became the first Black Superior Court judge to serve in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit (comprised of Newton and Walton counties) when appointed by then-Governor Roy Barnes in 2002.

Johnson, 61, died July 1. Newton County coroner Tommy Davis attributed the death to natural causes.

Alcovy circuit Chief Justice John Ott said he and Johnson had both tested positive for COVID-19 and were self-isolating. He said Johnson conducted a court hearing from his home, via Zoom, just hours before he died.

“He had a very keen intellect,” said Ott, “and that’s what made him a good jurist. He had a lot of intellectual curiosity, and he was very people-oriented, meaning he could read people. You weren’t going to pull the wool over Judge Johnson’s eyes.”

Friends said that Johnson seemed to wear a perpetual smile and maintained an optimistic outlook that helped him win widespread praise for fairness and compassion in the courtroom.

Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Larry Thompson said Johnson was considering running for a seat on the Georgia Supreme Court last year.

“When he talked to me about running for the position, he didn’t have anything bad to say about the court or any particular justice,” said Thompson.

“I find, many times when people are seeking a public elected office, there’s a campaign based on negativities. That’s what struck me about Judge Johnson. He was always very positive about his campaign.”

It ended up that Justice Robert Benham retired early and the Supreme Court seat was instead filled by gubernatorial appointment.

Johnson’s experience of helping break the school system’s color barrier played a significant role in molding him, said Geoffroy.

It showed him “the importance of justice and equality,” speculated Geoffroy, who thinks that instilled in Johnson the notion that “the law was the way to right the ship.”

Being raised by a pair of public servants — educators — helped foster a sense of duty in Johnson.

His dizzying resume of civic and professional involvement included becoming the first African American to head the Council of Superior Court Judges of Georgia and helping to establish a mentoring program in the county school system.

Atlanta Attorney M.J. Blakely Jr., who considered Johnson a mentor, put it this way: “If Horace was involved with and doing something, I knew I ought to be doing it as well. Just about everything he touched became grander.”

He said he and Johnson became close after meeting at a commencement ceremony at Oxford College, which Blakely attended.

"A lot of people will tell you they'll help you, but he really did," said Blakely. Johnson helped guide him through Emory University and the University of Georgia's law school, the judge's alma maters, and even hooked him up with his old fraternity.

“As recently as a few weeks before he passed, he called to check on me and see how I was doing,” Blakely said.

Friends say Johnson’s Christian faith and devotion to his family were strong. His son, Horace J. “James” Johnson III, said the qualities that served him on the bench were on full display at home. Fairness, firmness and compassion were hallmarks. And mistakes resulted in lessons.

Underscoring that family connection was the day he was appointed as a Superior Court judge.

“I was with my grandmother and he called with the news,” his son said. “He was very happy. One of his first comments was how happy his (late) dad would have been. He had many involvements but, at heart, he was a family guy.”

In addition to James Johnson, the judge is survived by his wife, Michelle, and another son, Bryant.

The Covington News reported that the Newton County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday night to name the county courthouse the Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Judicial Center.

A memorial service, limited to 50 or fewer people, is set for 2 p.m. Friday at the courthouse, said Ott. Following that, Johnson’s body will lie in state from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the courthouse atrium for public viewing.